Future Islands

 

The Far Field

6

Moving forward by looking backward

If retro revivalism has taught us anything, it's that aping past decades can be a slippery slope; leading to a state where conjuring a sense of nostalgia is the primary goal. Often, pastiche goes down well enough with the mainstream crowd (just look at Netflix's Stranger Things), but it rarely translates into something beyond its influences. In terms of our musical moment, rock and pop bands have been rummaging through the debris of 70s and 80s fallout for inspiration because, let's face it, hip-hop artists are the new rock stars. A surge of glossy synth-pop has made its way back into popular music over the past decade, and with it, plenty of generic basslines, soft drum machines, and washed-out vocals. Baltimore-based Future Islands are a band that fit into this mold, but there's a difference, and his name is Samuel T. Herring.  

As the frontman for a group that's been toiling in relative obscurity for the better part of a decade themselves, an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2014 which inexplicably went viral marked the beginning of a strange phenomenon for a guy who seemingly just wanted to dance awkwardly, beat his chest, and howl into the night. This is not to disparage the work of fellow band members William Cashion (bass/guitar), Gerrit Welmers (keyboard) and Michael Lowry (drums), all competent musicians in their own right, but it was Herring's undeniably bizarre and yet riveting stage presence which captivated audiences. What followed was a surprising instance in which retro nostalgia butted heads with something operating by its own rules; exemplified by a bona fide synth-pop hit, "Seasons (Waiting on You)" which managed to overcome its derivative sound mainly by the sheer operatic power of Herring's vocal range. Oh, and yes, the sad Dad dancing helped.

Lyrically, Herring has always been interested in kineticism; in this idea of forward momentum at the expense of domesticity or even happiness. The love-sick ballads strewn throughout 2014's Singles revealed a man shaken by bitter breakups, but still hopeful. On The Far Field, he sounds positively defeated, with tales of failed relationships marked by a steady stream of bass-driven grooves and retro synths. In terms of sound, Future Islands have always looked backwards, which gives the lyrical preoccupations an irony which Herring seems genuinely in on, even as he often trips over flowery metaphors and simplistic sentiments.

If Singles was a coming out party for a band who have been subtly refining their sound for years, The Far Field is a slight tweak to a now standard formula which, despite the uniqueness of Herring's voice, has become somewhat repetitive. The songs here are subtler, gentler, and more refined in terms of production, but lack the dramatic spark and raw energy of similarly-sounding tunes from Singles. The closest the band comes to a "Seasons (Waiting On You)" type hit is probably lead single "Ran", with interwoven melodic lines blowing out into a declarative chorus, backed by a steady beat and airy keyboard washes. However, the album highlight is undoubtedly "Shadow", which pairs Herring's deep croon with Blondie's Debbie Harry raspy voice; culminating in a magical duet which takes the band's sound into more adventurous territory. Too bad the majority of the record remains planted firmly in the "what works" realm rather than snaking off in more unexpected directions.

If retro revivalism is sputtering, no one has bothered to tell Future Islands, and beyond that, Samuel T. Herring shows no signs of slowing down. As impassioned as he sounds throughout The Far Field, the notion of forward momentum at all costs is beginning to show its age. No one, not even a man with a throaty growl and untamed heart, can keep running forever. Eventually, life catches up, and with it, all those predictable basslines and familiar synths.

 

Pillorian

 

Obsidian Arc

7

Living in a post-Agalloch world

by Jericho Cerrona


Forged from the ashes of black metal stalwarts Agalloch's recent demise, (a dissolution, by the way, stemming from intergroup conflict), Pillorian is a band who seeks to usher in the apocalypse by eschewing that former band's more ambient neo-folk tendencies and getting right to the heavy. Honestly, Agalloch vocalist/guitarist John Haughm took to propping himself up as the sole genius behind his band's grandiose mixture of layered riffs, shrieking vocals, and folksy post-rock textures, and subsequently, watched the entire enterprise collapse under the weight of sheer ego. 

At once familiar to fans of Agalloch as well as a shift away from some of the more progressive metal signifiers, Obsidian Arc fully commits to Haughm's method of fast-picking tremolos and full-throated vocals. The results are an album which, aside from a spare acoustic intro and outro on "By the Light of a Black Sun", sees Haughm, drummer Trevor Matthews, and guitarist Stephen Parker forging ahead with symphonic intensity. On tracks like "Archean Divinity", which begins as a doom-laden series of escalating riffs and thunderous drumming before exploding into blast beats and demonic vocal shrieks, and the ferocious Scandinavian-tinged black metal ripper "A Stygian Pyre", Pillorian simply lay down the sonic gauntlet. There's even a brief ambient guitar solo near the end of the latter song which speaks to the band's desire to overlay heaviness with moments of atmospheric texture.

Obsidian Arc will inevitably be linked to Agalloch's past work and by extension, will suffer from such comparisons. Whereas records like 2010's Marrow of the Spirit and 2014's The Serpent & The Sphere are both unqualified triumphs, Haughm's latest effort doesn't have the expectation-defying shifts in tone which caused such controversy in the notoriously strict community of black metal enthusiasts. If Agalloch opened up the parameters of what could be allowed within the genre; (bands like Krallice and Falls of Rauros have openly benefited from their success), then there was an expectation that Pillorian would perhaps further reinvent the wheel in some respects. This is an unfair assessment, of course, but still a natural reaction given Haughm's central involvement, and the foreboding slow build of dread and obsession with nature and rebirth have been replaced here with more streamlined breakneck shredding. There are isolated moments, such as the proggy ambient guitar tones on "The Sentient Arcanum" and the drone of closer "Dark is the River of Man", where Pillorian come close to approximating a more nuanced mode of instrumentation. However, the majority of Obsidian Arc, no matter how skillfully executed, stays in one or two modes of dark/black metal onslaught.

Still, Pillorian's ability to change tempo, shift melodies, and throw in some blood-curdling screams with gargantuan hooks, are on full display throughout. Haughm's self-proclaimed status as a "visionary" may have been at least partially unfounded, glossing over the indispensable contributions of his former bandmates in order to elevate his own cult, but his presence is nevertheless all over Obsidian Arc. If this slightly different, though familiar, direction with a new band feels a bit more rushed (both in terms of the relentless driving force of the songs as well as the opaque conceptual framework of the album as a whole), then it's probably because Haughm felt pressured to conjure classic black metal melodies rather than noodling with ebb and flow. Whatever the case, Obsidian Arc marks a debut of considerable power and pummeling force, only hiding briefly behind Agalloch's formidable shadow before stepping out into the light for some sonorous riffs and crushing doom.

 

 

 

Ty Segall

 

Ty Segall

7

Taking retro revivalism for a ride

by Jericho Cerrona


As of this writing, Ty Segall isn't even 30 years old, and yet he's already amassed a staggering catalog in the lo-fi garage rock scene which also birthed the likes of Thee Oh See's John Dwyer and Tim Cohen of The Fresh and Onlys. Along with side projects, collaborations, various EPs, and even a T. Rex covers album, Segall has taken the "more is better" Robert Pollard approach to songwriting, and has consequently been both praised and dismissed for such productivity. Obviously, being young and reckless has a lot to do with it, but Segall is seemingly on a mission to carry the 60s-influenced psych garage rock mantel for a whole new generation. On his latest self-titled release (his only previous self-titled came out in 2008), he compounds all of his obvious influences and past work into one cohesive vision.

Ty Segall feels like a collision of the classic rock of 2014's Manipulator and the glam punk balladry of 2012's Twins. There's little in the way of last year's brilliantly abrasive Emotional Mugger, a record which took the fuzzy psych to extremes by burying everything in muddy reverb and demonic vocals. Instead, Segall feels much more open to sharing and caring throughout his new effort; alternating between Bolan-esque glam, Beatles-cribbed balladry, and Kinks worship, among other things. Part of the problem with Segall's aesthetic has always been a tendency to wear his influences a bit too heavily, leading to a certain kind of sameness from album to album. However, if he's taking a cue from 60s artists which he undoubtably loves, then this near constant stream of content is not only understandable but necessary.  

Things kick off right away with "Break a Guitar", a crunchy ripper which isn't so much a primer for the remaining 10 tracks, but a statement of back-to-basics purpose. For Segall, raiding the late 60s/early 70s sonic closet is more of a loving patchwork for the kind of rock' n roll that doesn't exist anymore than an empty gesture toward nostalgia. There's heavy metal-sounding sludge ("The Only One") which recalls not only Black Sabbath but The Beatles in "Helter Skelter" mode, Syd Barrett-inspired folk ("Orange Color Queen"), and some pummeling Ramones-esque punk ("Thank you Mr. K). Segall masters all of these various mode effortlessly, but the real triumph is nearly 10-minute epic "Warm hands (Freedom Returned)", a monstrous combination of deranged vocals, squealing guitar solos, and noodling instrumental breaks which reveals Segall as a more ambitious songwriter than one might expect.

Not to be undersold is the fact that Segall is also working with a full band this time out; as regulars Charles Moothart (drums), Mikal Cronin (bass), and Emmett Kelly (guitar) are joined by newcomer Ben Boye on keys. Boye's contributions are especially noteworthy throughout; with jagged piano motifs providing a brief respite from the sounds of crunchy distortion and intertwining guitar leads. In his early days, Segall would play all of the instruments and self-record, but this time out he has legendary producer Steve Albini handling the recording and mixing duties. The iconic mastermind ditches the more low-end muddiness of earlier recordings (aside from the pop sheen of Manipulator) and embraces mid-fi production without losing the fuzz. Therefore, the more ballad-heavy songs, like "Orange Color Queen" and "Talkin" pop with texture, while standard garage punk numbers ("Break a Guitar, "Take Care To Comb Your Hair", "Thank You Mr. K.") crackle with grit and clarity. 

As a comprehensive survey of his musical preoccupations over the past decade, Ty Segall is a nifty entry point to all things Ty Segall. As a further indication of where another decade will take him, however, it's slightly more uncertain. Either way, you can put money on the fact that his signature guitar solos will keep zig-zagging and wailing on into the night. Long live rock n'roll. Just make sure to comb that long hair, man.

 

The Flaming Lips

 

Oczy Mlody

4

Cosmic flop

by Jericho Cerrona


The "what the fuck happened to The Flaming Lips?" narrative is, in some senses, completely natural given Wayne Coyne and company's decades-long desire to do whatever they want whenever they want. Since the band have entered the iconic psych pop canon with classics like 1999's Soft Bulletin and 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, the trajectory from seminal experimental outsiders to celebrity-trolling punching bags seems all the more alarming. However, for every misstep like 2006's At War with the Mystics, there have been adventurous lo-fi statements of purpose such as 2009's Embryonic, which suggested that Coyne, Steve Drzod, and Michael Ivins hadn't completely disappeared up their own asses.

2013's The Terror was another example of the Lips' pushing forward and exploring synth-driven ambience, but unfortunately, the relative success of that record was overshadowed by lame Beatles covers and ill-judged bong-rip sessions with Miley Cyrus. As it turned out, The Flaming Lips had gone from the niche band everyone admired to the bloated self-parody of grey-haired hippies doing too many drugs and seeing too many rainbow-colored wormholes. Had Coyne been able to sell all of this as some kind of commentary on mid-life crisis joining hands with over-sexed, strung out millennial privilege, then such annoying excursions could have had a degree of self-effacing context. However, somewhere along the line, The Flaming Lips forgot about the actual music. In true egomaniacal fashion, Coyne believed that the main draw of his band was simply their abrasive unpredictability rather than compelling songwriting.

On their 14th proper full-length Oczy Mlody, the Lips retreat inward by combining many of their old signifiers; demon frogs, rainbows, unicorns, and Pink Floyd-inspired acid psychedelia, with some of their more recent fixations; a Miley Cyrus guest spot, somber synths, hip-hop-influenced beats, etc. The results are an album which strains for a shroom-trance atmosphere and lyrical provocation that the band simply don't believe in anymore. When Coyne sings White trash rednecks, earthworms eat the ground/Legalize it-every drug right now/Are you with us are you burnin' out?/Kill your rock n'roll, motherfuckin' hip hop sound on "How??" the obvious intent is to engender a reaction, but the vibe of the song is so washed-out and unmemorable that the likely reaction will be a shrug. Elsewhere, Coyne's self-satisfied ramblings reach a pinnacle on "Galaxy I Sink", where he mutters How can the stars really know me now/When I fear their light will burn me up? It's a lame attempt at profundity where none exists, further exacerbating by the song's lush symphonic arrangement. Worst still is the ironic detachment which Coyne trots out at will here; with references to dayglo strippers, edible butterflies, and rainbow sluts being especially representative of the record's lyrical vomit. 

Truthfully, Oczy Mlody isn't a complete train wreck. It's much too subdued and sonically textured to be dismissed outright with any kind of passionate disdain, and it's tough to deny the tactile propulsion of "A Night While Wizard Hunting" or the pleasant blippy electronica of "Almost Home." However, what's missing here is the sense that The Flaming Lips are challenging themselves in some way or moving forward with a clear musical direction or thematic purpose. Though uneven, The Terror at least attempted to use ambient keyboards in order to accentuate Coyne's pessimistic lyrics concerning the breakup with his longtime partner and Drzod's relapse. On Oczy Mlody, The Lips have very little to say, clumsily trying to incorporate "hip" modern touches like auto-tune, pitch-shifting, and dreary wannabe hip-hop inflections to cover for a lack of substance.  

In interviews, Coyne has described Oczy Mlody as "Syd Barrett meets ASAP Rocky", and therein lies a huge problem since, for one thing, it's unclear which movement of Barrett's career he was referring to. Like Barrett, The Lips began as trailblazers only to steadily fall into appropriations of their own inflated pretensions. Misguided left turns such as the 24-hour gummy skull experiment, Yoko EP, Christmas piano album, countless limp cover records, and that Miley Cyrus debacle, have been signaling career implosion for some time now. Of course, The Flaming Lips know this and probably planned it out that way. Still, it's tough to remember a time when the cult of Coyne was referenced with hushed reverence rather than the kind of pained grimace which greets them now. Fittingly, Oczy Mlody ends with background in-studio chuckles from the group. At least someone is laughing.

Foxygen

 

Hang

8

....And pomp and circumstance

by Jericho Cerrona


If rock' n roll history is any indication, the self-indulgent opus is often followed up by the brisk "return to form" where all the drugs, ego, and flamboyance are ceremoniously flushed down the toilet in lieu of rehabilitation. This idea is especially pertinent when it comes to Foxygen's Sam France and Jonathan Rado, whose last effort, ....And Star Power, was the kind of abrasive wankfest which either signaled intentional disharmony or an unforeseen psychological meltdown. Whatever goodwill they had established with 2013 critical darling We Are the 21st Century Ambassadors of Peace & Magic had been nearly eradicated by cancelled shows, excessive drug use, and in-band squabbles which culminated in the noisy discord of ...And Star Power; an ambitiously genre-hopping mess that at the very least showcased a band on the verge of a nervous breakdown that hadn't completely lost their ability to surprise.

With Hang, Foxygen have pulled a sonic 180; both in terms of sound as well as attitude. Instead of squawking guitar solos and 60's psychedelia in the Marc Bolan/ Rolling Stones mode, their latest venture taps into airy 70s-tinged pop, complete with a 40-piece orchestra for maximum theatricality. The overly polished production has it's benefits; mostly in terms of giving the compositions a sweeping cinematic quality, but it also means that some of Foxygen's looser, more spontaneous tendencies are sidelined. The biggest downside to this new direction is that Rado's textured guitar work is peripheral at best, only kicking in briefly for a solo during the middle of "Mrs. Adams" and fully exploding on the final tune, "Rise Up" during its crescendo-laden conclusion. On the other hand, France fully embraces the album's kitschiness with aplomb; giving a series of charismatic vocal performances.

On opener "Follow the Leader", for example, France oozes a slinky Jagger-esque confidence over soaring strings, horns, and cooing background female vocals. On the aforementioned "Mrs. Adams", he adopts a lower register drawl, ala Bowie, while harpsichord struts along with symphonic instrumentation. It's the kind of self-aware posing Foxygen do so well without ever totally being drowned out by their influences. Some may disagree, as Hang traffics in some pretty obvious homage; Stones, Bowie, T.Rex, and Todd Rundgren are all here, of course but even stalwarts of camp like Elton John, Meatloaf, and Andrew Lloyd Webber get thrown in the mix. The latter is never more apparent than on the album centerpiece, "America", a rousing musical theater piece which lurches from big band bombast to piano-driven lounge number and then back to frenetic Danny Elfman-esque instrumental breaks. It's a genuine doozy; overblown to the point of self-parody, but thrilling in the sense that the band don't seem to be pillaging with ironic detachment. There's a sincerity and earnestness here that's infectious, even as one can feel Foxygen's wry sense of humor poking through any time things threaten to fall apart. On a song like "Avalon", for instance, honky-tonk piano and brass collide before turning into an audition for an ABBA cover band, but Rado and France somehow pull it off.

One of the more rewarding aspects of Hang is uncovering the combustible sides of the band which seem, at least initially, to be sublimated by the album's sheer grandiosity. Despite the peppy melodic stride of a song like "Mrs. Adams", there's a legitimate a dark emotional current to lines such as Hey Mrs. Adams, whatcha doing with that gun in your mouth? Meanwhile, the appropriately titled "Trauma" is the record's bleakest moment, with funeral backing vocals and France doing his best Leonard Cohen impression. It's this dichotomy; of utilizing elevated pop arrangements while sneaking in genuine human sentiments, that makes Hang such a defining creation for the band. It's also, unlike ....And Star Power, lean at just over 30 minutes, which itself is a bit of a self-aware nod given how theatrical the music on display can be. Instead of bloating out and sprawling in epic fashion, Foxygen continue their self-indulgent ways by inverting the notion of the pop opus, and luckily, we get to revel in the bombast.

Pixies

 

Head Carrier

5

                          Middle-age malaise

by Jericho Cerrona


 

The winding tale of late-period resurgence for one of rock's kings of lackadaisical weird continues with Head Carrier, a record very much lacking in the weird. Coming on the heel's of 2014's unfairly maligned Indie City (an album, by the way, which at least tried to approximate the band's more angular tendencies), Head Carrier lacks the kind of infectious spark which diehard fans might be hoping for. Instead, Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, and newly added vocalist/bassist Paz Lenchantin strip away the abrasion and settle into a comfortable melodic groove. Generally, this tactic works in terms of mostly pleasant-sounding indie rock tunes, but also highlights the moments where they try to recapture some of the old magic as, well, bordering on middle-age embarrassment.

The most noticeable thing right away about Head Carrier is it's gentle playfulness. "Classic Masher" feels almost pop-punky, "Might As Well Be Gone" is an unassuming melody-driven indie gem, and "Tenement Song" has a working-class power pop vibe; complete with a "Hey man!" hook. However, elsewhere Pixies run into the law of diminishing returns on cuts like "Baal's Back", an aggressively lame attempt at post-hardcore punk with some of Black's worst shrieking vocals to date and "All I Think About Now", which would be a criminal parody of "Where Is My Mind?" if written by anyone else, but because the band essentially copy that classic song's chord progression, it's somehow billed as homage. More problematic, though, is Black's lyrical concerns here, which reference Kim Deal's split from the group viewed through the prism of an aspirational narrative. Whatever her reasons for leaving, surely lines like I remember we were happy/That's all I think about now are only telling one simplistic side of the story.

In terms of straightforward alt-rock, Head Carrier occupies a niche which translates well in our age of warmed-over 90s nostalgia. Santiago's guitar leads weave with clarity atop Lenchantin's rumbling bass, and her Kim Deal impression on backup vocals is successful enough. Meanwhile, though Black certainly comes across bored and restless at times, he can still find his way around a hook. The problems arise from a sense that the band seems to think their visceral energy is no longer needed in modern indie rock. In a way, acts like Modest Mouse, The Strokes, and even more recent passing flashes in the pan like Yuck, have merged traditional alt-rock with idiosyncratic touches in a way which places Pixies in an awkward position. Still, the kind of bland college radio rock being churned out here is notable only insofar as it reflects a once great band's weariness at playing the game.

The major failure of Head Carrier is that it's simply average; a collection of so-so melodic rock tunes with the occasional misstep or failed experiment which never approaches the kind of combustible mood shifts marking the band's legacy. There's no danger here. No mischievous irony. No sense that at any moment, a song can morph and change its mood on a dime. In the final analysis, Pixies are no longer peddling lackadaisical weird as their modus operandi, but rather, stripping away weirdness altogether in lieu of middle-age malaise. 

Danny Brown

Atrocity Exhibition

8

Confessions of a gap-toothed madman

by Jericho Cerrona


Taking a page from author J.G. Ballard--literally--Atrocity Exhibition is the title of his collection of interweaving short stories; really isn't something one would expect from Detroit rapper Danny Brown. Tales of self-medication, violence, egomania, and partying, sure, but such themes were previously contextualized by the man's deranged sense of humor. The strangeness of Brown's voice, unorthodox rapping style, and left-field production choices have always veiled the deeply contradictory nature of his lyrics; as if the dark edges of his persona shouldn't be taken as seriously as other artists. His previous albums XXX and Old, also told stories of depression and hopelessness, but they were perceived almost as throwaway jokes from the near-passed out drunk in the corner at the party spouting gibberish. Brown's need to reconcile his self-destructive lifestyle with his art cannot be ignored on Atrocity Exhibition, however. As a snapshot of suffering and anxiety, it's an absolute gut-punch. As a synthesis of off-kilter instrumentation and razor-sharp lyricism, it's one of the most forward-thinking hip-hop albums to come along in years.

The theme of drug addiction and its consequences are the narrative thread which weaves Brown's intertwining stories. Like Ballard, Brown keeps the interior life of his protagonist both relatable and unknowable. Opener "Downward Spiral" sets the stage; both in the obviousness of its title as well as the lo-fi jazzy instrumentation which skitters behind Brown's ragged voice. In a clever inversion of the constant neo-lit party, Brown claims he's "sweating like I'm at a rave", a reference to a paranoid mind hiding behind excess. "Tell Me What I Don't Know" takes this notion even further to its natural endpoint; a first-person plural account of mindless violence leading to death and prison told with a melancholy flow and ambient synths. The antsy, bugs crawling under the skin vibe of Brown's panic-stricken methodology here hits a fever pitch on "Ain't it Funny", an electro rave-up with squawking horns and "Golddust", which sounds like a Stooges song filtered through a beat-driven drug trip. Brown upends expectations lyrically too, even if the ground he covers is familiar. I used to ride a Schwinn/Now I'm on a tour bus, going places I ain't never seen he coos on the Kelela-featured "From the Ground", which sounds like an R & B jam recorded under water, and there's even some introspection when he humorously demurs Might need rehab, but to me that shit pussy on "Ain't it Funny." He's clearly a miserable wreck, but unraveling has never sounded this confrontational and immediate.

Atrocity Exhibition is the 35 year-old Brown's coming-of-age record; a grimy, unsettling toilet flush of drugs, sex, and self-immolation which buries inside your skull and rattles the brain like a scrambled egg. It's simultaneously noisy, beautiful, atonal, dancey, and altogether singular; with the snaggle-toothed Brown digging deep into his demons and embracing chaos as a necessary means of survival. As he astutely puts it on "Downward Spiral", You're worst nightmare to me is a normal dream, and all we can do is be grateful to be caught in such a spiraling netherworld.    

Bon Iver

22, A Million

5

Auto-tune & Heartbreak

by Jericho Cerrona


It was only a matter of time before Justin Vernon (aka Bon Iver) caught up with the cultural zeitgeist. Or, in true Internet-savvy fashion, perhaps the zeitgeist has finally caught up with him. The singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist's 2007 debut For Emma, Forever Ago, was delicate, hushed, and unassuming; full of acoustic folk ruminations on loneliness and heartbreak which unexpectedly became a hit. The narrative of his band falling apart, romantic relationship disintegrating, and a subsequent retreat to a Wisconsin cabin in order to write songs while getting drunk are so earnest as to be laughable, but again, it's this very universality, informed by that vulnerable falsetto, which endeared him to a legion of listeners. Of course, the record made Vernon into an indie icon; the image of an ordinary guy, his acoustic guitar, and lots of booze translating into a bonafide success story. After For Emma, he worked with Kayne West, Bruce Hornsby and others, and even won a Grammy for 2011's Bon Iver, Bon Iver which all begs the question; just who the hell is Justin Vernon and why has success got him so panic-stricken?

The narrative of the reluctant pop or rock star is a well-worn trajectory, and Bon Iver's latest album 22, A Million grafts that idea onto his most purposefully obtuse work yet; a hodgepodge of vocoder effects, percussion, and electronic overlays which inevitably still sounds very much like Bon Iver under a fog of pretense. Whether that's a good or bad thing is debatable--Vernon's upper register croon has always been a bit divisive--and here he compounds the issue by giving into auto-tune manipulation; resulting in something that will likely be fawned over for its ambition alone. If For Emma was Vernon's embrace of death and Bon Iver his resurrection story, then 22, A Million is what happens one is floating around in the afterlife trying to communicate with mere mortals who simply can't hear you. Call it Vernon's Kid A; with stuttering production, digital effects, and symbolic imagery all adding up to skeletal song structures which refuse to cohere.

The real problem with 22, A Million is that Vernon has absorbed his various influences and then attempted to channel them through his own navel-gazing sense of earnestness, which is a mix that just doesn't feel natural. The move into more electronic territory is no big surprise, just as the 80s soft rock pastiche he toyed with on Bon Iver was all the rage five years ago (actually, that kind of retro kitsch is still in vogue), but maybe all that time Vernon spent hanging with Kayne has encouraged him to take a page from the 808s & Heartbreak playbook. Gone is any semblance of relatable fears or common refrains, replaced here by herky-jerky digital production, wailing sax, and the aforementioned auto-tune trickery. A more experimental Bon Iver isn't a bad thing on paper, and there are moments here; such as TV on the Radio-esque chorus of "33 God", the gently plucked acoustics of "29 #Strafford APTS", and the Twin Shadow-sounding crooning swagger of "666", when Vernon hits on some compelling ideas. However, at 34 minutes, the album is much too truncated to make an impact. It's almost as if he took a bunch of intriguing instrumental concepts, layered some purposefully muddy production over them, and then tweaked his vocals in order to fool listeners into thinking there's something profound going on behind the noise.

Bon Iver's strengths, for better or worse, have always been about a certain kind of directness, and the real failure of 22, A Million is that it never connects on an emotional or visceral level. It will likely be praised, like Kid A before it, for being a piece of experiential art requiring multiple listens to fully appreciate, but unlike Tom Yorke, Vernon doesn't possess an aura of mythical darkness. He's just an ordinary guy still stuck in that Wisconsin cabin listening to James Blake, Kayne West, and Bruce Hornsby; wondering just what the hell to do about all this success.

 

 

Thee Oh Sees

A Weird Exits

7

Embrace the squall

by Jericho Cerrona


The 11th studio album from prolific San Francisco garage rockers Thee Oh Sees is a defiantly guitar-driven beast, and that's really saying something if one has been following the cult of John Dwyer. The ringleader/vocalist/guitarist and only remaining member of the band has been on an extended "hiatus" since 2013, which of course, has lead to three studio albums in the last two years, including 2015's Mutilator Defeated at Last.

A Weird Exits sounds exactly like what one expects from Thee Oh Sees; fuzzed-out guitar solos, breakneck drumming, acid-fueled psychedelic noodling, and Dwyer's high-pitched wails, but it also finds room to throw in a few curveballs, especially in the album's second half. Even with the band's insane productivity, there's been a lingering sense of sameness over the past few releases, with each one coming across as minor variations on a sound perfected by the band back in the early '00s. Aside from the brilliantly wonky Castlemania, which played like a series of solo recordings in the Syd Barrett mode, Thee Oh Sees have settled into a comfortable groove where genuine surprises have been few and far between.

This time out, there's two drummers (Ryan Moutinho and Dan Rincon, respectively), who bring a muscular sense of tightness to tracks like opener "Dead Man's Gun", with it's chugging guitar chords, blown out dissonance, and typical "wooo!" yelp breakdown, and stoner metal thrash session "Ticklish Warrior." From there, things more interesting with "Jammed Entrance", an instrumental where deranged effects pedals and hacksaw analog synths battle for attention, and "Gelatinous Cube", which gives us some of that demon-voice Dwyer from the Castlemania era and allows Moutinho and Rincon to rampage like madmen on their respective kits. Meanwhile, both "Unwrap the Fiend, Pt. 2" and "Crawl Out From the Fallout" are slower and spacier than typical Oh Sees efforts, but the real standout is closer "The Axis". With it's church-like organ swells, relaxed soloing, and oddly touching lyrics, the track is a six-minute 70's-tinged ballad which is quite possibly the most haunting thing the band has come up with yet. Known mostly for relentless energy and cacophonous shredding, Thee Oh Sees prove here that they could one day transition into something looser and more refined.

A Weird Exits doesn't rewrite the book on Dwyer's particular brand of glam/garage/pysch, but what it does is feature enough slight wrinkles in the band's DNA to suggest a possible shift into more experimental territory. For now, though, it's business as usual for everyone's favorite purveyors of guitar-driven squall; which means, of course, there's likely another slew of records coming down the pipeline before this apparent hiatus ends.  

Swans

 

The Glowing Man

7

Rock n’ roll as Mantra

by Jericho Cerrona


Seen as a grand send-off for the current Swans lineup, The Glowing Man is an examination of mood and atmosphere in which singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Michael Gira tests listeners patience for withstanding sonic overload. Though there are breaks in between the squalls of drone by what often appear to be lyrical optimism, the overwhelming vision here is akin to orchestral walls of pure dread. Ever since reforming in 2010 with My Father Will Guide Me up a Rope to the Sky after a 14-year absence, Swans have continued pushing the limits of their symphonic aesthetic; culminating in 2012’s The Seer and career highlight To Be Kind in 2014. The latter was a rarefied thing in how it actively resisted the idea of latching onto singles or skipping through tracks, instead unfolding over the course of 2 discs spanning 121 minutes. Honestly, this has always been a part of the band’s persona, but even though ambitious and heavy as fuck, To Be Kind also contained moments of tranquility amidst the apocalyptic noise.

With The Glowing Man, Gira and company have given their fans a suitably cacophonous ending to a trilogy while still managing to create a work which stands on its own. Both The Seer and To Be Kind were exhausting efforts which in some senses reached towards ecstasy, but just what that meant or how it could be obtained remained elusive. Was Gira haunted by past sins or simply wallowing in the most painfully bleak contours of human existence? And if there were answers to some of our most basic human desires, why even try looking for them when this world is, for lack of a better term, a shit-hole? This dichotomy between light and darkness, pain and jubilation, mockery and sincerity, is at the heart of what makes Swans such an indispensible unit, and these juxtapositions are all over their latest effort. This time, however, Gira seems less anxious about impending disaster and a little more open to the possibilities of spiritual enlightenment. The key to the album, therefore, is recognizing how the meditative befriends the chaotic. If To Be Kind was Gira’s nightmare and by extension, our own, then The Glowing Man is what happens once one wakes up in a pool of sweat and jittery nerves to realize the sun is rising.

Of course, if Swans weren’t so skilled at this type of thing, they could easily be written off as self-serious wankers using feedback, heavy distortion, thunderous drumming, and repetitive grooves in order to showcase just how sad and lonely they are, but the band is old enough (Gira is now 62), to at least appreciate the temporal nature of everything. If the search for higher meaning or orgasmic release or some kind of “balance” can be attained through mantra, then Swans just might be the vessel en route to the divine. Clocking in at just under two hours, The Glowing Man is a much calmer, more esoteric effort than the group’s last two records, but the real key here is the idea of unified cyclicality-- so many of the compositions here play like extended jam sessions that also happen to be carefully arranged--and even though Gira’s monotone howl is often the driving force, he never completely overwhelms the collaborative essence of the music. Drummers Phil Puleo and Thor Harris create textured knots of repetition. Guitarist Christoph Hahn lays down some lap steel. Bassist Christopher Pravdica and guitarist Norman Westberg rumble, rip, and trudge along. It’s all in keeping with a unifying vision for the “greater good” or to usher in the end of the world or to provide a few moments of Zen just before the sky opens up to swallow us all whole. It’s all for the best or the worst, depending on your perspective.

With the opening one-two punch of “Cloud of Forgetting” and “Cloud of Unknowing”, it’s abundantly clear that Swans are going for a ritualistic approach which begins like a prayer before spiraling out into a propulsive trance state. Breathing, breaching, leaving, reaching/ God, oh God, I’m leaving, I’m leaving… Gira intones like a grand High Priest over intensely building percussion, wailing guitars, and walls of drone. Elsewhere, he references hard drugs (“Frankie M”), toxic relationships (“”When Will I Return”, featuring Gira’s wife Jennifer on vocals) and most fittingly, the spectre of physical vanity on closer “Finally, Peace”, which has the haunting line All creation is hollow/ and a picture’s a shadow.

As a capper, The Glowing Man is not nearly as surprising as The Seer or as overpowering as To Be Kind. Instead, it exists as an almost ethereal answer to the kind of jack-hammer intensity the band have owned for decades now. Of course, this thing is still gargantuan in its own right; hell, the nearly 30-minute title track alone is a study in rampaging sonic dynamics. On the other hand, the album’s shortest track, “People Like Us”, is a four-and-a-half minute psych folk ditty which conjures Pink Floyd acid flashbacks. Ultimately, it’s this study in opposites--of finding hope in darkness, of seeing God in the Devil’s eyes, of blowing out eardrums while also soothing the mind--to which Swans aspire, and that alone is something messianic in a world of musical mediocrity.


 

Deerhoof

 

The Magic

7

Attempting to conjure the kind of thing album titles are made for

by Jericho Cerrona

 

Deerhoof_Cover.jpg

Deerhoof’s 16th album, The Magic, was recorded in an abandoned office in Mexico, and after the streamlined art-pop of 2014’s La Isla Bonita (which, let’s face it, is only a pop album in a Deerhoof kind of way), the band have used this enclosed space in order to return to their lo-fi roots. This doesn't mean that one of indie rock’s most experimental, playful, and long-standing acts have gone back and contrived a more “youthful” sound, but that they simply see musical variation as a means for sonic exploration. This is all to say that their latest effort sounds very much like a Deerhoof record; jaunty guitar licks, odd-time signature drumming, and of course, Satomi Matsuzaki’s effervescent vocals, but from song to song, there’s a surprising amount of variety here. Perhaps that’s why they choose to name their album The Magic. Attempts at rediscovery after playing together for over 20 years would be daunting for any unit, but Deerhoof still somehow manage to convey a level of brash playfulness. Perhaps they are just really good at faking it; recording in such a way where the material oozes that crackle and pop younger bands often conjure effortlessly, but such statements are foolish in light of seeing Deerhoof rip live. There’s simply no faking it. They are the real deal.

Even if The Magic isn’t a great Deerhoof record like Runners Four and Friend Opportunity, it’s still proof that they can do fuzzy garage rock and 80s-tinged New Wave with the best of them, provided one can get past the fact that the abrasive side of the band has softened with age. The sugary poppiness of La Isla Bonita, which gained its fair share of detractors, wasn’t exactly a step backwards so much as a way for Deerhoof to fully embrace the contours of pop accessibility which have always been on the fringes of their music. Here, they scale back in terms of production clarity by turning up the tape hiss and adding a few more avant-garde flourishes (mostly in terms of squiggly, analog keyboards), but at it’s heart, The Magic is a fairly accessible listen by Deerhoof standards.

Right away, opener “The Devil and his Anarchic Surrealist Retinue”, blows out of the gate with slightly out of tune guitar strumming, interweaving chords, and Matsuzaki’s chirpy vocal inflections... confirming, basically, something that needs no confirmation; that no matter how manic sonic detours and shifts in style, Deerhoof will always sound exactly like Deerhoof. The first wrinkle in terms of variation comes with “That Ain’t No Life To Me”, a scuzzy garage rock anthem with guitarist Ed Rodriguez on vocals, which is probably the closest the band has ever come to conjuring straight up punk energy. There’s whimsical sing-alongs with killer bass (“Life is Suffering”), 80’s analog synth romanticism (“Criminals of a Dream”), funky James Brown soul filtered through a can of weird (“Model Behavior”), and even more male-fronted garage stompers (“Dispossessor”). More unexpected are the moments of lyrical clarity and perspective. For instance, the aforementioned “Model Behavior”, with its crackling bass line, nimble drumming, and retro keyboard washes, could easily been seen as yet another tune of off-kilter playfulness. However, Matsuzaki’s vocals, usually unintelligible, are clearer here than usual, bemoaning A system/ A victim/ A candidate; which suggests a political call to arms in the Bernie Sanders mode to embrace a more hopeful world.

In this Donald Trump’s version of America we’ve found ourselves in, it’s refreshing to hear a band so loose and reaching for the kind of inspiration that only comes in the moment. Rather than meticulously arranging and fussing over their aesthetic, Deerhoof basically have approximated an album which corresponds to our instant reaction Tweet paradigm. Yet, instead of realizing that said tweet was a grossly reactionary mistake and deleting it, Deerhoof leave it out there, scrappy flaws and all.

 

 

 

Xenia Rubinos


Black Terry Cat

The Summer of Rubinos

by Jericho Cerrona

 


Even though singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalist Xenia Rubinos currently resides in Brooklyn, her music is cross-cultural. Some of this has to do with her Puerto Rican and Cuban heritage, but it's also the deft melding of disparate styles here--soul, funk, jazz, hip-hop, art-rock--into something wholly unique that impresses most. If New York City is the nexus for gentrification and cultural appropriation, then Rubinos seems poised to call it’s bluff. As a staunchly socio-political album, Black Terry Cat is resonant; the sound of a woman trapped inside an environment where her identity as someone of color is intrinsically linked to a kind of hipster utopia. This utopia, of course, is a facade; a fact Rubinos gleefully attacks in a manner both exuberant and melancholic, channeling artists like Erykah Badu and then adding in Caribbean rhythms and rumba-influenced grooves.

If Rubinos’ 2013 debut Magic Trix was brashly lo-fi and structured mostly around wonky keyboards and drums, then Black Terry Cat is the sound of Rubinos fully embracing her neo-soul/ R & B muse (while also picking up bass guitar for the first time) in order to craft something lyrically prescient and sonically varied. It’s a more mature album; bigger, splashier, and more in tune with identity and race as a central motif. The art-rock whimsy of Magic Trix has been replaced somewhat by a collection of tunes which feel more confidently arranged and performed, with more streamlined production by longtime collaborator and drummer Marco Buccelli. In it’s own idiosyncratic way, Black Terry Cat feels like a hot summer’s day album; something to get one through the blistering heat waves and sweltering traffic pileups. It has a soulful universality which will likely endear her to a broader audience, and yet she’s speaking, much more bluntly than she did on her debut, about what it means to be a brown-skinned woman in America. This more accessible approach, both in terms of lyrical content as well as sound, might seem like a direct reaction to the weird indie stylings of Magic Trix, but in actuality, it’s simply a matter of an artist locating a specific narrative that’s personally meaningful. In turn, this means Black Terry Cat can be also connect to a wider range of listeners, and that’s a very good thing. 

From opener “Don’t Wanna Be”, which oozes saxophone-fueled soul, to the politically charged “Mexican Chef”, which takes aim at the roles minorities play behind the scenes of thriving industries dominated by white people, and the gorgeously jazzy ballad “Lonely Lover”, which comes closest to conjuring Billie Holiday, Rubinos carries everything off with her expressively magnetic voice. Her debut was jagged and rough around the edges, drawing similarities to acts like TuneYards and St. Vincent, but here, Rubinos seems unconcerned with labels or genre restrictions. When, for instance, she coos brown cleans your house, brown takes the trash, brown even wipes your grandaddy’s ass on “Mexican Chef” over a catchy percussive beat, you can feel both her anger at the system as well as her slowly breaking heart. On the record’s most experimental and thrilling cut “See Them”, Rubinos laments Who are they to come tell me where I’m from and what is wrong?/ We know you made up stories page by page, why you lie? It’s a boldly confrontational statement about the dangers of cultural appropriation from those who think they can understand a person’s history without ever walking a day in their shoes. It’s also, in terms of instrumentation, unpredictable in a way which upends the idea that this is some kind of socio-political screed. If anything, songs like “See Them” and especially “Just Like I”, with it’s distorted guitars and stuttering bass, are deeply felt windows into Rubinos’ interior life. They never feel intrusive or navel-gazing, though, because as a narrator, Rubinos is such a warmly approachable presence. 

As an album, Black Terry Cat, is also warmly approachable. Though it zeroes in on issues of race and politics, this is not a work of didacticism, but rather, of passionate empathy. Rubinos imbues her very particular style of funk, jazz, neo-soul, and art-rock experimentation with grooves and hooks to spare, while never sacrificing herself at the altar of dumbed-down accessibility. This is the emerge of a vital, important artist; one who has serious things on her mind while also not taking herself too seriously. It’s time to usher in the summer of Rubinos.

Death Grips

 

Bottomless Pit

8

Welcome to Death Grips 2.0

by Jericho Cerrona


One could have surmised after imploding following the release of game-changing The Money Store in 2012 that Death Grips were done. As in slithering away into the back alleyways of Sacramento's seedy underbelly. As in blowing through major label cash and throwing an erect penis on the cover of their followup No Love Deep Web.

As in unleashing so many online performance art stunts and PR marketing shenanigans that everyone, including their most ardent fans, were forced to shrug them off as some kind of bastard mutilation of the Internet age. Of course, the actual music the band has managed to create, whether through sheer force of will or carried along by the mystical powers of digital algorithms, is something.

What that something amounts to is debatable, but Death Grips are difficult to easily dismiss. In many ways, they are victims of the hype machine as well as obvious beneficiaries. They can blow out of the gate with the passion and energy of old school punk or blitz eardrums through electronic mayhem. They can cancel shows or stage faux-retirements. They can drop albums for free online out of nowhere or take forever to appear in the public spotlight. They can lob out hooks and groove-heavy bangers or upend accessibility with blasts of atonal noise. They are Death Grips, and apparently, they aren't going anywhere.

On their latest effort Bottomless Pit, the band makes good on the tease that was double album The Powers that B, which concluded with last year's Jenny Death. That record was bookended with a noisy instrumental track called "Death Grips 2.0", which seemed to indicate either a new direction or the end of times. Well, if this is "Death Grips 2.0", then MC Ride (aka Stefan Burnett), producer Flatlander (aka Andy Morin), and drummer Zach Hill have taken all the sonic detours over the last five years and funneled them into one blistering stew. The results have the accessible hooks of The Money Store, the electronic overload of Government Plates, the grimy guitars and rock instrumentation of Jenny Death, and the misanthropic lyrical rage of No Love Deep Web. Despite the similarities, however, this is no rehashing of the familiar. At this point, Death Grips have cornered their own unique sound, and yet they still refuse to simply churn out variations of the same thing. Suitably abrasive and hard-hitting, but with mellower edges and some of the catchiest songs since The Money Store, Bottomless Pit is a a nasty plunge into the abyss of glitch-ridden hip-hop/industrial grime that will have fans bobbing and weaving like it's 2012.

The nudge back towards accessibility is noticeable right away with opener "Giving Good People Bad Ideas", featuring some clean guest vocals from Cherry Glazerr's Clementine Creevy and ferocious, near metal shredding work from Tero Melos' guitarist Nick Reinhart. Of course, once blasts of distorted noise and Ride's barking lyrical rants kick in, it's chaotic business as usual. "Hot Head" is a Zach Hill tour de force; a deranged flurry of drum fills and clanging cymbals playing fast and loose over Flatlander's densely layered digital theatrics. Meanwhile, Ride seems absolutely possessed here; rattling off near unintelligible barbs at the start before settling into a a grove of faux-braggadocio with lines like Self-inflicted/ What'd you tell them? I just told 'em hell's existence/ But you know me, don't nobody know my business. "Spikes" is a straight up banger; with a greasy 80s sounding guitar lick, Apex Twin-style bleeps, head-bobbing chorus, and some of Ride's most potently memorable lyrics, including the gem I'm all helter skelter/ I'm on that Faust. Probably the biggest left-field surprise, however, is "Eh", which takes the more restrained angle presented on "Get Got" from The Money Store and present an even mellower side of the band, even as Ride's mantra throughout seems to be a casual fuck-off to his critics.

Overall, Bottomless Pit isn't a "return to form" so much as it represents a synthesis of everything one can either love or hate about the group's particular brand of streaming age provocation. Five years into their whirlwind lifespan, Death Grips have neither surpassed their cultural impact nor devalued it. They are that rare band which continue to make music on their own terms without compromises. If this means that they will never exactly be able to recapture that holy shit one-two punch of Ex-Military and The Money Store, well, that's not really a big deal since they seem generally uninterested with repeating past glories. Whether it be simultaneously mocking and encouraging Internet trolling on "Trash" or getting into some snot-nosed, blood drenched Krautrock-style jamming on "Ring a Bell", there's no doubt Death Grips are trying their hand at an unholy breeding of atonality and gloss, and honestly, would we want things any other way?

 

 

M83

 

Junk 

6

Sonic dumpster-diving with Anthony Gonzales

by Jericho Cerrona 

 


If Fuller House, the latest in a line of misguided nostalgia baths streaming right now on Netflix is any indication, a time-hopping portal has opened within the nexus of the universe, producing ungainly mutilations from the childhood of those raised on TGIF and Super Mario World. It's a strange place we've found ourselves where capturing and then reconfiguring the pop zeitgeist seems to be the main obsession for musicians these days. Kevin Parker tried this on his last record Currents; a vanilla white guy dance rager in which guitars were curiously absent, and then there was that Neon Indian LP from last year where Alan Palomo did his best George Clinton by way of Prince impersonation. More crucially, if anyone has really been paying attention, Ariel Pink has been trolling 80s kitsch and soft rock conventions for nearly two decades, but that hasn't stopped Anthony Gonzales from trying his own variation on the nostalgia game. Though Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was an arty synth-pop juggernaut in which no corner of bombast was left unturned, Junk is what happens when Gonzales rummages through his childhood attic turning one kid's trash into another adult's treasure.

Likely to divide diehard fans and baffle the rest, Junk is full-on pastiche refined through keen attention to production values. It purposefully dabbles in the most uncool of 70s/80s fads; corny ballads, smooth saxophones, TV theme show interludes, airless guitar solos and pop-funk, but does so with its tongue firmly in the garbage bin. This may be one way of Gonzales retooling his approach to managing expectations. Hurry Up, We're Dreaming was in many ways the zenith of M83's signature sound; huge synths, huge production, and huge running time. It was also a case of too much of a good thing; a self-indulgent double LP which sprawled in all the wrong ways. On the other hand, Junk announces itself as kitsch right from the outset with that warped Sesame Street meets Punky Brewster album cover, and then makes good on that disclaimer over the course of 15 tracks.

Intentionally moving away from the idea of a record as experience, Gonzales makes each song a singular creation of retro schmaltz. Sometimes, like on opener "Do It, Try It", with it's slap bass, cheesy analog keyboards, and chipmunk-tuned vocals, the effect is annoyingly contrived. Elsewhere, though, such as the warbly French-electro gem "Bibi The Dog" and Blondie-esque 80s groove-heavy "Laser Gun", he hits on something uniquely enjoyable. The lack of irony is also noteworthy here. Though the album has been designed and produced in much the same meticulous manner as M83's previous outings, there isn't the sense that Gonzales and collaborator Justin Meldal-Johnsen are mocking the outdated musical styles they're employing here. Instead, everything is more or less played straight. For example, the sultry 80s-style ballad "For the Kids" feels like something Bette Midler might have birthed, but the tunes' overt sentimentality; soaring strings, soft drums, and twinkling piano, never feels condescending. Somehow, Gonzales and company manage to take their obsessions with decades-old pop culture detritus and give it a fresh coat of sonic paint. It's also nice to hear new M83 vocalist Mai Lan getting to strut her stuff here, particularly on the rumbling, saxophone-heavy rave-up "Go" and album highlight "Laser Gun." However, the moments where Gonzales provides vocal duties are the least successful, such as the rather embarrassing Phil Collins homage "Time Wind" and dorky R &B dance-pop cut "Walkaway Blues", which sounds like Bruno Mars stuck in a 80s time warp.

As an appropriation of 70/80s excess and the notion of music as a disposable medium, Junk is an intriguing about-face for M83. With the new-found appreciation for sub-genres like smooth jazz, soft rock, disco, and AM Radio dial cheese making their way into more mainstream quarters, Gonzales has hit upon the zeitgeist in a way that feels germane. However, while this new direction is surprising on a surface level, the push toward retro-expressionism as a means for understanding the bizarre place we've arrived at culturally means that Junk is actually a few years behind the curve. Had this record come out in, say, 2010, Gonzales would likely be heralded as a daft revivalist trolling camp and kitsch for unexpectedly artful purposes. In 2016, though, this left turn doesn't exactly feel like a left turn. It feels like just the kind of thing an artist who has been able to break into the mainstream with a series of shoegaze/ synth-pop epics would do in order to mix things up.

Tackiness reigns. Flamboyant excess dominates. Nostalgia is king. Hell, there's even a keytar solo on this thing. If anything, Junk is something to be combed through much like the now 36-year-old Gonzales probably did while opening up those childhood boxes of cassette tapes and CDs. If the overt lameness of pop's past conventions have now come back into the realm of unapologetic cool, then Gonzales has used this self-aware trend to forgo his usual preoccupation with the "Big Ideas" (there's no wrestling with man's place in the universe here), and just made some music. Junky music. Corny music. Music for the sake of music.

 

Animal Collective

 

Painting With

7

Psych-pop heavyweights create another idiosyncratic canvas

by Jericho Cerrona 


If album titles are any indication, then the latest madcap creation from everyone's favorite (or divisive) psych-pop makers Animal Collective is more than simply a coy joke. Painting With, above all else, is an embrace of slapdash splatter art; a cacophonous mix of techno-babble, hallucinogenic sounds, fractured melodies, and digital overload. In some ways, we should have been prepared for this. Their last record, 2012's abrasively brilliant Centipede Hz, was for many the absolute nadir of their artistic input; alienating all the hipster bandwagon jumpers whose knees buckled at the reverb-drenched gorgeousness of 2009's Merriweather Post Pavilion. Painting With takes the divisive elements of Centipede Hz and streamlines them a bit in terms of scope, choosing to focus less on psychedelic sprawl and more on dense layering of sounds to the point of implosion.

Always the outsider pop band, Animal Collective show no signs of returning to the freak-folk days of early work like Feels (2005), or the Beach Boys-esque warm accessibility of Merriweather. Instead, Centipede Hz was a turning point; an extreme left turn which left many fans and critics cold, and this trajectory continues here with probably one of least emotionally affecting records the band has recorded yet. Still, emotional connection rarely figures into Animal Collective's aesthetic, anyways. Noah Lennox (aka Panda Bear), David Portner (aka Avey Tare), and Brian Weitz (aka Geologist) have been at this for well over 15 years now, and are at this point well aware that expectations are bullshit. Incidentily, the fourth member, Josh Dibb (aka Deakin), sat this one out. With no one left to impress and a decidedly mixed reaction to their last opus, Animal Collective are free to indulge (or rather, become more self-indulgent) by making something that will likely have even the most ardent fans miffed. It's an album, like all of their work, which improves upon multiple listens, and of course, works immensely much better through headphones.

What one notices right away on Painting With is the lack of reverb and overall "big" sound that's categorized the band's discography over the past decade. It seems, at least superficially, that Animal Collective are going for more verse/chorus/verse structure here rather than sprawling everything out. Additionally, unlike Centipede Hz, where Portner took most of the vocal duties with his yelped delivery, Lennox gets more airtime this time and the two offer up a variety of interesting counter-melodies. The results are both hypnotic and frustrating; a series of carefully calibrated songs arranged with such precision that there isn't a sonic nugget which hasn't been modulated or fussed over, but which also can become muddled through sheer overproduction. At it's best, the album creates a disorienting sense of pop music funneled through a robotics factory. At it's worst, it tries to par down it's vision into a concise 40 minutes, which means the band are literally trying to cram every musical idea they can into a shorter span of time, which can come across undisciplined. Still, it's tough to complain too much when tracks like lead single "FloriDada", with it's bouncy vocals and propulsive rhythm, and standout "Golden Gal", which samples a Golden Girls audio clip and then goes into a wobbly jam with some gender-bending lyrics, are so winning.

Elsewhere, the band get into frenetic 16-bit Saturday morning cartoon craziness on "The Burglars", hand-clapping and wandering saxophone courtesy of Colin Stetson on "Lying in the Grass", and some deranged vocal intonations from John Cale on the woozy "Hocus Pocus". As a whole, the record is a mishmash of colliding textures, blipping beeps, swirling keyboard washes, and mantra-like vocals which at first sounds disjointed, but eventually comes into focus as a more cohesive piece of pop art. At times, Painting With sounds like something chip-tunes connoisseur Dan Deacon would come up with on a bender, but there's also a beguiling sweetness lurking under all the modular synths and zing-zagging percussion, especially with "On Delay", which achieves a rare sense of wonder lacking from many of the more hectic tracks.

In some senses, Animal Collective may have modulated their approach here based on the reactions to Centipede Hz, many of which were vitriolic. For a band accustom to critical acclaim, the impression was that ego and self-indulgence had overwhelmed the kind of memorable songwriting which made them break out of the underground in the first place. This, however, is a misjudged reaction, since whatever flaws existed in that last album simply stemmed from being too ambitious, which is nothing to sneer at. In a way, Painting With could have the effect of drawing the fans back into the fold, although it's a record just as confrontational as Centipede Hz, only more accessible by virtue of the band reigning in all the tangential diversions. The splatter-art moniker of the album's title may have more to do with living in an ADD-imbued world where connectivity relates to social media clicks and preening Instagram selfies rather than any particular musical narrative. In their own idiosyncratic way, Animal Collective have made another album which reflects our current pop-political-digital moment; frantic, urgently moving forward, chock full of sound bites which will be consumed and then re-posted.

 

 

 

Ty Segall

Emotional Mugger

7

Satirizing emotional connection one guitar freakout at a time

by Jericho Cerrona


Does Ty Segall ever sleep? The indie darling has amassed quite an eclectic catalog since first appearing from the fog-drenched gutters of San Francisco in 2008, including 9 studio albums, which of course, doesn't factor in numerous solo material and countless collaborations with other artists. This insatiable need for productivity could be seen as a case of millennial ADD or simply a natural extension of working within a musical landscape where the adage is to "write and record as much material as humanely possible". Since anyone with an amp, a few effects pedals, and a detuned guitar can bang out garage racket on their own dime, the archaic days of waiting in anticipation for one's favorite artists to release records the old fashioned way has become a relic from a lost era. Segall, though, feels like someone from that lost era; and his music, by and large, reflects a 60s/70s sensibility, with an emphasis on psychedelia, glam, and cacophonous garage rock.

On 2014's Manipulator, Segall seemed to be commenting on his past work while taking a step toward more commercial accessibility. Though he flaunted his Stooges and Hawkwind influences on Twins and doom metal on side project Fuzz, Manipulator saw him going in a different direction, with a more approachable vein of 60s psych ballads and 70's glam dominating the proceedings. It was, in a sense, Segall's version of a pop album. With Emotional Mugger, Segall throws another curveball and retreats back into his lo-fi roots with a set of shredding garage rock. It may come as something of a disappointment for those who felt his last effort was a genuine coming out party, but there was also something safe about Manipulator; it never went for the jugular or dipped into Segall's abrasive tendencies as a songwriter, something that Emotional Mugger corrects in fascinating fashion.

The album was initially announced via a cryptic VHS tape sent to music journalists, with a press release consisting only of an absurdist poem and a clip where Segall explained the concept behind the record, which had to do with psychoanalysis and digital sexuality, or well, something. The whole in-joke elusiveness here could be seen as a bit of trolling on Segall's part; an attempt to build faux-mystique for someone who really hasn't earned it (despite his popularity within the indie scene, Segall is no Robert Pollard or John Cale), but really, it does make sense in concert with the actual music here. If Manipulator was meant to be listened to while strolling through pastoral fields, then this one should be turned up as loud as possible inside a basement through shitty speakers. It's a disjointed, noisy listen; full of guitar freakouts, sputtering synths, jagged rhythms, and nearly indecipherable lyrics, with Segall often lowering his register into a kind of "demon voice", similar to what John Dwyer was up to on Thee Oh See's wonderful Castlemania. From the brilliant keyboard/guitar lick of opener "Squealer" to the King Crimson-esque progressive noise of "California Hills" and the vamping bravado of "Mandy Cream", a sexually perverse ditty covered in guitar feedback and distortion, it's clear that Segall cares very little if anyone finds these songs pleasurable or not.

This fuck-off attitude, which extends to how loose and live-sounding everything comes across here, is not merely an affectation, though. There's something liberating about Segall not worrying about pleasing anyone but himself. Many critics proclaimed that Manipulator was his entrance into the rock big leagues, and humorously, Segall's response was to throw all of his sonic tricks into a meat grinder and then lap up the blood and guts. Emotional Mugger lurches from one temp change to the next, throwing out knotty drum patterns, theremin interludes, affected vocals and in the case of "W.U.O.T.W.S", a lo-fi take on The Beatles' "Revolution 9". No matter how discordant things become, however, Segall never completely abandons his classic rock n'roll fixations. Surprisingly, the album maintains a sense of rhythmic energy--"Squealer, "Mandy Cream", "Candy Sam" and "Diversion" all have a propulsive, almost funky swagger--and Segall's strengths in terms of writing catchy hooks are still here, albeit more buried in grimy tape hiss.

The best thing about Emotional Mugger, other than the fact that it's a rowdy rip-fest, is that it feels genuinely adventurous in a way many of Segall's past efforts have not. This is not a passive listening experience. There are no clean breaks or straightforward rock songs. Hell, there's even a warped children sing-along during the outro of "Diversion". It is, above all else, Segall's visceral attempt at prodding and riling up his audience, and that's something we desperately need in rock n' roll right now.

 

Grimes

 

Art Angels

5

DIY phenomenon goes full mall pop

by Jericho Cerrona

 

 

 


Art Angels, the latest pop creation from Montreal native Clare Boucher, has one of the year's most startling album covers. Featured is a deranged three-eyed alter ego dispensed in mid-air; the neck breaking apart in multi-colored strands, bracketed by a k-pop Anime-style border. Looking at this bold image, one expects Boucher to take the experimental route in deconstructing what a pop record can be in 2015. This, however, is a partial misunderstanding of the direction the 27-year-old musician has been moving towards all along. Both Geidi Primes and Halfaxa were released in 2010, and both shunned commercial accessibility, even as remnants of melody could be heard creeping out from the edges. By the time Visions dropped in 2012, the zeitgeist had caught up with Grimes' garageband-produced, self-taught aesthetic, with a very clear attempt at capturing where pop music was heading writ large.

The thing about Visions that was interesting, beyond Boucher's bizarre chipmunk-like vocals, was the fact that it was closer to hip-hop and R & B than dream-pop, electro, and shoegaze; all genres to which Grimes had been lumped into. The results were beguiling, but also frustrating; as if she was making a stab at an artier version of Mariah Carey filtered through tumblr and Instagram culture. The album received critical raves and positioned Grimes as a forward-thinking pop artist on the brink of something big, but like a lot of musicians working in this social media-saturated environment, she was ultimately known more for her publicized spat with Ariel Pink concerning misogyny and gender roles in the music industry. Which all leads, naturally, to Art Angels. If context is everything, then the knowledge that Grimes apparently scrapped an album's worth of "un-pop, weird crap" tunes is instructive to understanding that whatever abrasive underground mystique she had possessed is of no use to her anymore. This is the work of someone with big ambitions and even bigger production values; resulting in a maximalist teeny-bopper pop record for the millennial crowd.

Like Visions, Art Angels seems to be gaining traction as some kind of mission statement from an artist who was christened before she was even ready for pop royalty. There's both a blessing and a curse in Grimes' move away from lo-fi Garageband loops and abrasive high-pitched vocal yelps into the realm of likable, dance-ready pop singles. The blessing is that some of Boucher's worst instincts--a penchant for repetitive synths and simplistic production, are jettisoned completely here. The curse, though, is that she's replaced those bad instincts with a few worse ones. Her need to replicate a kind of early 00s Europop, 90s dancepop, and bubblegum aesthetic means that the elements about her music that intrigued before--that alien falsetto, the reckless experimentation--is streamlined into a much more approachable package here. This is not a problem at face value, and Art Angels has its fair share of moments that go against mainstream radio pop, but the record completely lacks edge. What we desperately need in 2015 is pop music that's daring, angry, and challenging the status quo. For all her personality and undeniable tenacity as a performer, Grimes has unconsciously lumped herself into the boring position of appealing to the culture's unfortunate need to encourage positivity as as a means to an end.

This notion makes sense, especially seeing as how we live in ominous times, but do we really need a song like "California", in which Grimes does her best Taylor Swift impression, complete with dancehall beat and a sugary chorus? It's the kind of regressive pop single that Boucher is smart enough to realize is pure pastiche; a soulless piece of millennial propaganda which affects a kind of sunny disposition in the face of dissatisfaction. California/ you only like me when you think I'm looking sad, she sings, but this comes across like faux-attitude rather than anything resonant. Perhaps the real question here is whether or not pop music is even sufficiently equipped to provoke, challenge, or strive for resonance anymore. Still, if Grimes is going to go full pop accessibility, then she needs stadium-sized hooks, and this album just doesn't have them. It's this odd middle ground of trying to straddle commerciality with an idiosyncratic vision that will likely have critics drooling over this thing, but in reality, Art Angels is a compromised record. For every interesting track, like the psych-electro mashup with Janelle Mone "Venus Fly", there's a power-pop banger like "Pin" or the sugary R & B-flavored "Realiti" which sound sonically impressive, but also oddly innocuous. Something like the gothic-tinged club-ready stomper "Kill V. Maim" fares better, with its four-chord guitar progression, driving beat, and Boucher's aggressive cheerleader-style chanting. Energetic and empty, like all good pop songs should be, and catchy to boot. When she tries her hand at piano balladry, such as on "Easily", the results are a fascinating mixture of cooing feminine warmth and subtlety which bodes well for her future as a Julian Holter-esque chamber pop singer-songwriter. At other times, like the penultimate "Life in the Vivid Dream", there's a move toward the dream-pop folk of someone like Zola Jesus, which could be another mode of future exploration.

Art Angels is a difficult album to readily dismiss, especially in terms of where it sits within the collision of left-field creativity and mainstream pop music. Unfortunately, this isn't some bold reinvention of the form in the same way Visions wasn't an overwhelming artistic breakthrough for bedroom pop artists everywhere. If anything, Boucher's insatiable connection to social media--the incessant Tumblr posts, the feminist leanings, the eye-catching fashion sense--has created a rabid fanbase of mostly teenage girls who very well may embrace the record as a definite reflection of their digital sensibilities. Beyond that, Grimes has successfully pivoted into the mainstream consciousness without completely selling out her M.O. in that this always sounds like a Grimes album even as it lurches, fumbles, and refuses to cohere. If her previous work refused listeners requests for a way into her psyche, then Art Angels blows everything out for maximal effect, culminating in what she herself has described as "the first record I've made with an audience". The problem here is that this audience demands something that will make them feel comfortable with a vision of pop music where the rougher edges are sanded off and provocation is relegated to niche corners of the indie scene. Appeasing this audience, no matter how well-meaning and globally diverse, may in fact be Boucher's most fatal mistake; leaving even some of her most audacious ideas to capture and reaffirm the zeitgeist.

 

Battles

 

La Di Da Di 

6

Virtuosic trio finally embrace the "no singing allowed" mantra

by Jericho Cerrona


When a band announces themselves as forcefully as Battles did with their wildly inventive, game-changing 2007 LP Mirrored, it's difficult to assess subsequent works as anything less than disappointing. 2011 followup Gloss Drop was itself something of a sonic wow; moving away from the excessively instrumental prog-rock of Mirrored into a collaborative frenzy; with the likes of synth-pop visionary Gary Numan, Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, Argentinean DJ Matias Aguayo, and Yamantaka Eye of Japanese noisemakers Boredoms joining the fray. Multi-instrumentalist/singer Tyondai Braxton, who some would claim was the heart and soul of the band, would depart before the album's release, meaning future endeavors would remain shrouded in uncertainty. Though Braxton's sped-up effects pedals and chipmunk vocals were gone, there was nonetheless a fusion of funk, electro, and math-rock with more accessible song structures (complete with varying vocal styles) on Gloss Drop, proving the band still had plenty of virtuosic music left in the can.

With La Di Da Di, Battles have decided to ditch vocals altogether and lean on their ability to create syncopated grooves and propulsive melodies. While this seems like a natural progression in a way, seeing as the now three-piece (multi-instrumentalists David Konopka, Ian Williams, and drummer John Stanier) mostly used vocals as yet another tool in their arsenal of layered instrumentation to begin with, the lack of a connective tissue within the tracks means a sense of sameness begins to pervade. This is not to say that Battles have gotten lazy; there's still plenty of complicated tempo changes and warped guitar tones on display, but without an overriding conceptual framework, much of the undoubtably deft musicianship lacks a lingering quality. Opener "The Yabba" is a perfect encapsulation of the Battles M.O.; a repetitive groove, staccato synths, crashing cymbals, and a slowly building sense of forward momentum. Eventually, the song blows out into a full-on frenzy, with drummer Stanier becoming the maestro of controlled chaos. Indeed, much of the praise for Battles sans Braxton will center around Stanier's near messianic rhythmic abilities, as the best moments here revolve around his incredible dexterity behind the kit. For instance, "Dot Net" is a straightforward blast of warbly keyboard noises (or is it guitars made to sound like synths?) and funky baselines, but Stanier's dynamic drumming keeps everything from flying off into sonic tangents.

This centering of Battles' sound; which is noteworthy for starting out as repetitive motifs before warping into ever-increasing levels of insane looping and overlapping madness, is at the heart of why Battles feel a bit streamlined here. Songs like "BFF Bada" and "Summer Simmer" have catchy grooves and a rhythmic drive, but they mostly stay fixed in one gear. Unlike the more adventurous, shape-shifting songwriting on Mirrored and Glass Drop, much of La Di Da Di feels focused inward, as if impervious to the listeners insatiable desire for maximalist euphoria. Of course, Battles have never been minimalists, even as songs like "Cacio e Pepe", with it's distorted guitars and languid keyboard washes, suggest a cooling period, but one is still left waiting for the band to go completely off the grid.

Such expectations may be unfair, and given Battles' career trajectory, it's tough to imagine where they could possibly take their sound that wasn't already explored on their mind-melting debut. Braxton's bizarre vocals, which were obscured by having guest spots on their sophomore effort, does feel like a loss here, however. One can imagine something like "Dot Com", which features off-kilter synths and a hard-rock groove, being accentuated by robotic, ear-piercing yelps. As it stands, the song is pleasant, if unmemorable, refusing to shift into a more interesting detour. Ultimately, there's a focused intensity to the music that's noteworthy, even as the unhinged messiness of Gloss Drop feels even more like a step forward in retrospect. Perhaps the most intriguing track here is the nearly 7-minute closer "Luu Le", which makes no concessions to accessibility or expectations whatsoever. Lurching forward with odd tempo changes, distorted sleigh bells, xylophones, and cerebral mood-based soundscapes, the song showcases Battles' desire to explore the outer reaches of their sound.

If only the rest of La Di Da Di had this same kind of ambitious, fuck-off attitude. Battles desperately needs this kind of middle finger abrasiveness to survive as a solely instrumental unit, and too much of their latest feels afraid to veer off course into the arena of head-scalping weirdness. Additionally, the band's loopy sense of humor which have categorized their past work feels largely absent here. It might be strange to think of instrumental music as being humorous, but there's certainly a quirky sensibility to Battles which seems to have been lopped off somewhat. Perhaps this has something to do with a lack of vocals, but overall, the music feels even more robotic and impersonal on album number three. Ultimately, this is the work of supremely talented artists realizing the limits of a certain type of jam-band aesthetic; with the loss of Braxton, who leaned toward the left side of pop, being keenly felt throughout.

 

Deerhunter

 

Fading Frontier 

8

"I was born already nailed to the cross/ I was born with the feeling I was lost" -Bradford Cox

by Jericho Cerrona 


Attempting to pin down the overarching narrative surrounding Deerhunter seems like something Bradford Cox would ultimately write songs about. As the multi-instrumentalist and lead singer for the Atlanta band since 2001, Cox has been the poster boy for upending expectations of what a rock star should be. However, even contextualizing him into the narrative of the rock star is a dubious proposition, one that Cox himself would parody to some degree in his splendid solo record under the Atlas Sound moniker Parallax.

On that album's cover, Cox's profile was shrouded in high contrast shadows clutching an oversized microphone; as if playing the role of some forgotten 1950s matinee idol. His struggle with Marfan syndrome; (a rare connective tissue disorder that affects skeletal and cardiovascular systems) as well as apparent mental breakdowns notwithstanding, Cox is largely seen within the indie scene as an enduring figure. But this all begs the question; what exactly are Deerhunter on about and how does their seventh studio full length Fading Frontier slot into the equation?

Well, for starters, no narrative trajectory is that binary, and Deerhunter have never been a band interested in making simplistic statements. When their dream pop masterpiece Halcyon Digest dropped in 2010, there were mutterings from diehard fans of their raw, lo-fi early work that they had sold out and gone "pop." True to form, their next record, 2013's Monomania, saw them going full tilt with noisy bursts of guitar squall, warbly vocals, and decidedly abrasive production. It was an album only Deerhunter could have made, but one that very few would have expected in terms of their faux-narrative arc of going from underground art-rockers to streamlined indie pop sensations. If there's one semi-unifying theme to the narrative of Deerhunter (or more specifically, Cox's songwriting habits) its the idea of death, decay, and unspeakable loss permeating the edges. Halcyon Digest and Parallax were both influenced by the passing of Jay Reatard and Broadcast's Trish Keenan, while Monomania detailed the impact of a "love affair" (Cox has described himself as asexual in the past) which left him devastated. With Fading Frontier, there was the initial impetus of reading into the fact that Cox was recently hit by a car; leaving him with a broken jaw and pelvis and on painkillers, as somehow instructive to how the album would turn out. Instead, the pain and delirium of the accident seems to have taken Cox and his bandmates into the realm of the serene; though the lyrical darkness which has always been a part of the writing, remains intact.

In fact, many will view Fading Frontier as a disappointment in the same way fans expected Halcyon Digest Volume II at the time of Monomania. At a brisk 36 minutes spread over 9 tracks, this is undoubtably Deerhunter's least fussy album to date, but that in no way means it's slight or inconsequential. The cult of Deerhunter could hear the sounds of breakthrough success--mainstream acknowledgement looming--or they could hear the same voice; fragile, uncertain, emotionally wrought, bursting through the accessible song structures and clear production. Sonically, Fading Frontier is closest to the dreamy pop of Halcyon Digest and the electronic minimalism of 2008's Microcastle, but the reliance on synthesizers is much more pronounced here than in the past. The whole retro revival of 80s culture notwithstanding, Deerhunter haven't so much appropriated shimmering keyboards and stadium rock into an art-rock package as they've tailored such influences to their own wholly unique sound. There's no mistaking Fading Frontier for anything other than a Deerhunter album; and even when the tenor of the tunes approaches poppy uplift, Cox's more opaque lyrics make the very idea of "positivity" within indie music partially irrelevant.

For instance, Cox lists a variety of painful experiences, including a gender reassignment gone awry, before intoning Take your handiclaps, channel them and feed them back until they become your strengths on opener "All the Same". It's a nifty inverse of the kind of likeability and positive vibes the song seems to be giving off, which is indicative of the record as a whole. I'm off the grid, I'm out of range, Cox sings over gorgeous synths washes and electronic drum beats on "Living My Life", and if one isn't paying too much attention, you'd think this was an optimistic sentiment coming from a man known for wallowing in his contradictions. Still, no matter how despairing or insecure Cox's thoughts may be, there's no denying that the music he's created, along with members Moses Archuleta, Lockett Pundt, and Josh McKay, remains blissfully upbeat. Aside from the tenaciously catchy "Snakeskin", which has remnants of deviant attitude, there's little dissonance to be found here. It's almost as if Fading Frontier signposts a rebirth; something that comes naturally and almost imperceptibly, after a cataclysmic fall. That Cox and company seem to be picking up the pieces left after the wake of Monomania is itself something of a narrative; though even here, you'd be hard pressed to gleam anything resembling conventional catharsis.

In many ways, Fading Frontier is Deerhunter's most delicate and graceful album yet. Of course, that doesn't make it their most memorable in terms of pure songwriting (Halcyon Digest gets that prize), nor does it jar one out of complacency like Monomania did, and there's certainly something to be said about the more polarizing, non-accessible material like 2005's Turn It Up, Faggot. Still, if narratives are built around catering or skirting expectations, then Fading Frontier is the work of a band whose narrative is as unconventional as 1970s experimental underground cinema. Not to content to rest on their laurels or simply pull a bizarre left turn, Deerhunter have condensed much of what they've accomplished already into something that feels both immediate as well as just out of reach. In this sense, album highlight "Ad Astra" perfectly encapsulates the feeling of floating weightlessly (backed by Brian Eno-esque synths and Cox's reverb-drenched falsetto) while still maintaining a sense of humanity. Unlike a lot of modern artists using electronic flourishes as a means for tweaking kitsch (i.e. Neon Indian, Toro Y Moi), Cox simply applies it in order to further his mental landscape of shifting emotions. If, as Cox states at the beginning of "Snakeskin" that I was born already nailed to the cross/ I was born with the feeling I was lost, then we should all be thankful that such self-loathing can sound so wondrous.

 

 

Destroyer

 

Poison Season 

7

Dan Bejar's impressionistic tour of New York City

by Jericho Cerrona 


If Dan Bejar's last album, 2011's free-jazz/rock opus Kaputt, was the sound of one of rock's most esoteric singer-songwriters finding his inner 80s groove, then his latest venture is what happens when the man gives us a chamber-pop view of New York City. Poison Season is an ornate, lush piece of work; heavy on strings, bongos, piano, saxophones, and sweeping compositions. Crucially, if Kaputt saw Bejar channeling the frequent David Bowie comparisons into the realm of straight up synth-driven glam, then this one feels like an Easy Listening record in which he croons like a warbled version of Frank Sinatra. Sure, there's a little bit of Bowie's Hunky Dory phase here--especially the prevalence of string sections--but mostly, this is the sound of Bejar loosening up.

Ever since the mid-90s, where Destroyer's lo-fi debut We'll Build Them a Golden Bridge paved the way for a cult-like fanbase, Bejar has making outsider pop music on his own terms. During the following decade, he'd work in everything from the shoegaze-esque folk of Destroyer's Rubies, to melodic collaborations with The New Pornographers, Frog Eyes, and indie supergroup Swan Lake. This all lead, of course, to a surprise breakout on the fringes of the mainstream with Kaputt. At the time, there was an explosion of 80s-fueled nostalgia (which, incidentally, is even stronger now), but Bejar didn't really seem aware of it. In a way, Kaputt was a canny appropriation of past styles--sax-fueled lounge music, synth-pop, 80s soundtracks--that nonetheless felt like a Destroyer album through and through. This wasn't Bejar jumping onto a trend; but rather, it was him using dreamy soundscapes as yet another mode for extrapolating his sometimes impenetrable poetic musings. Free-association lyrical riddles notwithstanding, what keeps Bejar relatable is his playful sense of play. This is no more true than on Poison Season, in which seemingly pretentious lines like Jesus is beside himself/ Jacob's in a state of decimation are followed up by humorous barbs such as I think I used to be more fun/ Ah shit, here comes the sun. At times, Bejar comes across like the drunken post-Bohemian uncle talking about the good old days, while at others, there's a slurred fragility to his voice that conjures visions of a ghost out of time.

Not one for following trends (as some mistakenly assumed during the Kaputt tour), Bejar again resists easy pigeonholing here. Unlike much of Destroyer's past work, which reveled in a disheveled kind of strangeness, Poison Season is surprisingly accessible. This is not to say complexity and quirkiness has been forsaken; but that some of Bejar's more abrasive tendencies (especially in regards to his singularly odd vocal inflections) have been streamlined a bit into full-on crooner mode. For example, on "Forces From Above", the hard-driving strings, throbbing baseline, and spirited percussion give way to near spoken-word balladry in a way that feels shockingly restrained. Meanwhile, on "The River", the swooning saxophones meander dreamily as Bejar overlooks Manhattan in all of it's deceptively sleazy glory. The laid-back vocal delivery at first feels like a disappointment, but it quickly becomes clear that Poison Season is superficially striking a grand orchestral pose without bothering to deliver on the melodrama. In a way, Bejar's mercurial quality and outsider status makes his bid for classic crooner that much more interesting, and even seemingly slight songs, such as the piano-led ballad "Girl in a Sling", ache with fleeting intimacy. When he laments Girl I know what you're going through/ I'm going there too in that whispy Dan Bejar way, you feel an unspoken kinship with him, even as ultimate empathy remains just out of reach.

Also interesting is the way such serene compositions bleed into more uptempo numbers, like the Springsteen-esque "Dream Lover"; a rousing slice of Americana which acknowledges its pastiche quality without coming across smug. Then there's something like "Hell", which begins slowly with sharp strings and wandering horns before taking a turn into baroque pop territory as Bejar repeatedly intones It's hell down here/ it's hell. "Midnight Meet the Rain" sounds like a Latin-fueled TV detective show theme song, while the two-piece conceptual opener/closer "Times Square, Poisons Season 1" and "Times Square, Poison Season 2" is rivaled only by the centerpiece "Time Square", which goes full soul phase Bowie.

In some senses, Poison Season is a direct response to the unexpected position Bejar found himself in after the success of Kaputt. His opaque songwriting and theatrical delivery remain intact, but there's also a resistance to giving us maybe exactly what we think we want from him, whether that be the art-rock pulse of mid 90s-era Destroyer or the 80s glam stylings of a few years ago. Trafficking in everything from Broadway, Dylan, Van Dyke Parks, Bowie, and Beat-generation ennui into one cohesive package is daunting, if a bit knowing, but Bejar pulls it off effortlessly. More importantly, he manages to meld these disparate influences into something that always sounds and feels exactly like Destroyer, which is in itself, something of a triumph.